Sunday, November 23, 2008

Revealed: Star Wars-style 'light sabre' to destroy cancer cells

By Daniel Martin

Scientists have developed a Star Wars-style 'light sabre' which could fight cancer cells. Above, Ewan McGregor in the Phantom Menace

Scientists have developed a Star Wars-style 'light sabre' which could fight cancer cells. Above, Ewan McGregor in The Phantom Menace

A revolutionary laser which could fight cancer has been developed by British scientists.

The device, which has been compared to a Star Wars light sabre, could be routinely used on patients in NHS hospitals within the next five years, according to the researchers.

The machine - a couple of millimetres square - fires a laser beam so accurately that it can puncture a hole in an individual cell, allowing drugs to enter and do their work much more effectively.

Drug companies are often confounded by the problem that it can be easy to get a medicine into the body by injection or pill - but much harder to get the drug molecules into the cells themselves.

It could mean, for example, that the cells surrounding the spot where a tumour has been removed by surgery would be holed by the device.

This would allow chemotherapy drugs to enter and kill any remaining cancer cells.

It would be particularly useful for hard-to-reach cancers such as that of the pancreas.

The team from the University of St Andrews has managed to mount the 'light sabre' on an optical fibre.

The next step is to develop it for use on endoscopes, the tubes used by surgeons to pass miniature cameras through the body.

The device was developed by Professor Kishan Dholakia from the university school of physics and Dr Frank Gunn-Moore from the school of biology.

Dr Gunn-Moore said: 'You could think of these as tiny light sabres like they had in Star Wars inside your body.

'We can use lasers to punch tiny holes exactly where we want them. We can produce a rod of light that can even go round objects.'

'We can produce a rod of light - sometimes described as a sword - that can even go round objects. It really does sound like science fiction.'

The new device relies on a method called 'photoporation', allowing insoluble compounds such as genes and drugs to be injected into individual cells with the assistance of light.

The developers hope it could be used to develop medication by making it easier to test how drugs work in cells.

Dr Gunn-Moore said it would be especially useful in his area of expertise - Alzheimer's disease.

Professor Dholakia said: 'This method has, to date, been hampered as it was necessary to focus the laser beam to a very precise and extremely small point at the cell surface - a place hard to locate!

'However our novel technique uses a laser beam shape that does not spread: it stays narrow and elongated.'

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